Edwin Encarnacion was officially introduced to the media in Cleveland on Thursday. The previous night he was met with rapturous applause when shown on the scoreboard attending a Cavaliers game. For fans in Toronto, it has been understandably surreal to watch, and tough to swallow; small-market Cleveland, which vanquished the Jays and their powerful lineup in the ALCS last October, ending up with their star slugger for the next three seasons. Meanwhile, the wealthy and incredibly popular team north of the border spins its wheels at precisely the moment it feels like it needs most to be bold.
How could this happen? And how can the Blue Jays salvage this strange and so-far thoroughly unsatisfying offseason?
When Mark Shapiro agreed to come to the Blue Jays from Cleveland in mid-2015, he was likely expecting to tear down a roster that appeared too old and full of too many players steaming toward free agency. But before his predecessor, Alex Anthopoulos, left the picture, he compounded those problems and fundamentally changed the situation Shapiro was walking into. In a whirlwind of moves at the July 31 trade deadline, Anthopoulos moved several prospects for a rental pitcher, David Price, and an even deeper long-term payroll commitment in the form of Troy Tulowitzki's contract. Complicating matters even more for Shapiro was that, after six years of Anthopoulos' midnight phone calls to other GMs and flopping around from one plan to the next, something finally clicked for those 2015 Jays. The on-field results were spectacular.
When Anthopoulos chose to leave the club following that season, Shapiro (and, eventually, his handpicked GM, Ross Atkins), had a new task: maintain the Jays' remarkable success while still finding a way to build toward the younger, self-sustaining future they had initially envisioned. To do so they appeared determined not to continue down AA's path of creating future payroll problems in exchange for short-term gain. With salaries for Russell Martin and Tulowitzki beginning to outstrip their on-field value, Josh Donaldson about to get very expensive, and free agency a year away for their bargain duo of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (combined 2016 salary: $24 million), judicious spending was needed to both keep a winning team on the field and ensure the club didn't become the next Phillies—a once-successful franchise lost in a half-decade of bloated payroll irrelevance.
That almost immediately ruled out keeping Price, which, coupled with the departure of the suddenly-sainted AA, threatened to cause irreparable damage to the relationship between front office and fans from almost Day One. But because the core of the team was already so good, Shapiro and Atkins saw that they would be able to make smaller-scale moves and still have a high chance for success without having to throw out their long-term goals. They couldn't not try it. And in large part because of the great bets they made on Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, the Jays indeed made it back to the playoffs in 2016.
But those bets were fairly obvious ones—the team needed to deepen its rotation on a somewhat limited budget and wanted badly to avoid giving up a draft pick to sign one of the top-tier players. Now, as the club heads toward 2017, fans continue to demand a successful on-field product, but no longer are the answers for the front office so obvious. And no longer are the stakes for them so low. They are through playing with house money.
If that's the reason the club has been so conservative this winter, it's a mistake. Kendrys Morales for $11 million per season might seem a reasonable enough bet, but in the minds of Jays fans he is simply "Not Edwin." There will be no shortage of people comparing the two players over the course of the upcoming season. In that way, a seemingly small bet becomes a really big one.
So, too, will the Jays' reluctance to let Bautista fall back into their laps—as it seems now, based on the whispers of the rumour mill, he is badly trying to do.
The old saying goes that if a GM listens too much to the fans he'll soon find himself unemployed and sitting with them, but the Bautista situation seems oddly perfect for it to not have happened already. Jose would fill a huge need in the team's outfield, and he does nothing to damage the club in the long term. That is, apart from the loss of the compensatory draft pick the Jays would acquire if he signed elsewhere—but that's potentially offset by the fact that they could theoretically move him at the trade deadline if they're not in contention, or that if they are in contention, it's probably largely because they have Jose fucking Bautista. On a cheap and short-term contract, no less.
Of course, the Jays aren't the only team that is refusing to meet whatever Bautista's current demands are, so there's still a decent chance that happens. In fact, the Jays would likely tell you that this offseason has mostly gone to plan for them—that they struck early on the pieces they thought they most needed, and now have the dollars and the available playing time to let the market come to them. As a lot of teams' rosters become essentially set, with numerous players still on the market, having full-time jobs available for them becomes an asset—a lesson surely learned by Shapiro and Atkins over the years in Cleveland. Having available full-time jobs on a team that's coming off back-to-back ALCS appearances and playing every night in front of a packed house of raucous fans should be a significant asset, too. As does the fact that, even though Boston, Cleveland, and Houston are all superior teams on paper, even this unfinished Jays roster is still good enough to be part of the next tier of American League contenders, and maybe even at the top of that list.
Those facts don't make it any less unsettling for fans that the team has been so quiet, though. Nor does the fact that they've already seen the front office try to play hardball with Encarnación and get badly burned for it.
Bautista is the easy and obvious answer here. And the sooner his camp and the team can figure this out the better.
Beyond Jose, the pickings are slim.
The Pirates have tried to move Andrew McCutchen, the Rockies may still deal Charlie Blackmon (or Carlos Gonzalez), and there have been whispers about the Yankees moving Brett Gardner. All three would be upgrades on what the Jays currently have in the outfield—though, shit, I might be an upgrade on some of what they have out there—but they would cost the club more in terms of prospects than the draft pick they fear missing out on if they sign Bautista, and hardly offer more.
The Mets' duo of Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson are said to be on the Jays' radar as well, though they don't move the needle much, either.
The teams that are sellers on the trade market are already punting on 2017 because their players are mostly bad. Milwaukee's former MVP, Ryan Braun, is an interesting name from among that pool, but he would come with a lot of baggage. Joey Votto would still make all the sense in the world, but seems destined to never happen—plus the cost would be tremendously high. The Royals have options in free-agents-to-be Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, but both would be miscast as corner outfielders, and again would cost more in terms of prospects than the Jays would or should give up.
The list of remaining free agents is thoroughly uninspiring. Angel Pagan—a league-averageish switch-hitter whose defensive metrics looked decent in 2016 after a shift to left field, but an aging player reliant on his legs and lacking in durability—is probably the best fit of the bunch. Brandon Moss is a name that's been linked to the Jays, but is the kind of high-power, low on-base, high-strikeout guy that can create Smoak-like black holes at the bottom of a lineup, and Jays fans are awfully sick of that. Michael Saunders would be a great fit had he not gone 0-for-the second half.
There are others who could fit, too, I suppose. But, being honest, they're hardly worth combing through. None would come close to "salvaging" what has happened with the Blue Jays here in this foul offseason. None would inspire and relieve the fans (speaking of, the Jays sure need to find some bullpen help, too!), nor would they make the team all that much better than it already is with some combination of Steve Pearce, Melvin Upton, Ezequiel Carrera, and Dalton Pompey set to flank Kevin Pillar.
None, that is, except for the greatest position player in Blue Jays history.